Snyder, Detroit journalist offer hope for city mired in woe

I’m old enough -- 74 -- to remember the days when Detroit was a thriving city and a magnet for folks throughout Michigan.

When I was a little boy, my mother would put on her white gloves and hat and take me to the enormous J. L. Hudson store downtown. At that time, it was one of the biggest department stores in the nation, chock-a-block with wonderful things. To top it off, we would have chicken sandwiches for lunch in the cafeteria.

It was a big deal for my parents to take the long drive on Ford Road from Ann Arbor to “the city” for dinner at Al Green’s, a place that remains dim in my memory, except for the enormous mirrors in the dining room.

People from all over the state trooped to the Detroit Institute of Arts and shopped on fashionable Woodward Avenue.

And no spring was complete without a visit to the Eastern Market to stock up on all the flowering plants for sale … and maybe have a sampling of strange, but delicious, Middle Eastern dishes.

Thousands and thousands of people in this area treasure these memories of a Detroit that was truly “the arsenal of democracy” during World War II. The Great Migration drew hundreds of thousands of people, black and white, to the city where a working man could make enough to buy a car and, maybe, even a house. (For a time, the city boasted the highest concentration of owner-occupied houses in the country.)

Like most big thriving cities, Detroit spawned larger than life characters.

I knew Jerry Cavanagh pretty well when he was mayor from 1962-1970, about the time I started my newspaper company. In those days, they said you could see all the way from the mayor’s office atop the City-County Building to the Capitol in Washington, and Jerome P. Cavanagh enjoyed that psychological view as much as anybody.

So much, in fact, that he spent a lot of time in Washington. Returning on a 2 p.m. flight to Detroit Metro, he was startled to see the television lights blazing in his face as a reporter’s microphone pushed forward: “Good morning, Mr. Mayor. What brings you to Detroit?”

Cavanagh, though, was nothing if not quick-witted. He responded with a spout of profanity that assured the film clip never made it on the air.

Things were already heading south when Coleman A. Young was mayor from 1974 to 1994. The arc of white flight to the suburbs had already taken hold, and the mayor displayed no interest in trying to fix the deteriorating Detroit public schools, thereby insuring that few young families who had the choice would ever settle in the city.

The Great Migration from the South to the North was succeeded by a Great Migration out from a city that once had almost 2 million people, but now may have fewer than 700,000 residents, many illiterate, unemployed and angry at what’s become of Detroit.

So now Gov. Rick Snyder has formally declared the city is in a financial emergency; he plans on naming an emergency financial manager within a couple of weeks.

And we shall now watch a great experiment in whether a once-great city with a tough political culture can claw its way to financial sanity, without imploding over racial and economic tensions.

So far, two Michigan leaders deserve praise for standing tall. One is the governor, whose “let’s just solve the problem” approach has sparked anger among some Detroit politicians but admiration elsewhere.

“I look at today as a bad day, a day I wish had never had happened in the history of Detroit, but also a day of optimism and promise,” he said last week.

The other is Stephen Henderson, the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, the largest newspaper in Michigan.

Over the past months, Henderson’s candid, direct, insightful writing has provided consistent context and leadership for Michiganders, whether Detroiters or not.

Here’s an example from March 3: “The Emergency Financial Manager is coming to repair the covenant between the government and the governed. … Keep the streets safe. Pick up the trash. Run the busses on time. Fight the fires and rescue the wounded.”

Here’s hoping the relentless positive attitude taken by this governor and this editor becomes the majority one in both Detroit and Michigan during what is certain to be a trying and difficult period.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Gene Markel
Tue, 03/05/2013 - 8:40am
According to the 1950 census there were 250,000 residents employed in manufacturing in Detroit. According to the 2010 census there were 25,000 residents employed in manufacturing in Detroit. This is the reason Detroit is in its present condition. The current high tech renascence cannot replace the number of workers from the manufacturing sector nor the wealth it created.
William C. Plumpe
Tue, 03/05/2013 - 8:52am
There is certainly risk in the appointment of an EM. Particularly risky for older City employees like me who while experienced and knowledgeable might well be on the chopping block because we are expensive. But I've always tried to do a good job and avoid the politics (although sometimes you just can't do that and get your job done). I do hope that the EM is able to cut through the politics and just get things done that have to be done and keep the pontificating and posturing to a bare minimum. Considering past history that will be a very welcome change. And that being said I am looking forward to an EM because I think it will mean that things that should have been done years ago but were not because of "politics" will finally be done. And the City of Detroit over the next few years will return to financial stability. I am sure of it. And I will do everything I can to work towards a City with an increasingly healthy and vibrant financial outlook and hope for the future. The only advice I have for the EM is please try to be sure that the medicine is not worse than the disease. I know that change is needed and I can accept that but try to have a little bit of compassion if possible especially for employees like me who have consistently showed up and tried to do a good job. Enough said.
Tue, 03/05/2013 - 10:34am
So, the governor's "Let's just solve the problem" approach earns him high, "stand tall" regard from Mr. Power. Another way to phrase this philosophy is, "The end justifies the means." Some other historical figures who adopted a tough, "Let's just solve the problem" approach include Adolph HItler, Franco, Castro, Pol Pot, etc., etc. After all, Mussolini made the trains run on time. The argument that, in order to save democracy in Detroit or anywhere else, we must first destroy democracy, appoint a dictator, and disenfranchise hundreds of thousands if not millions of (mostly minority) citizens, is specious at best. It is the logic of the corrupt, and it is dangerous. Mr. Power's longing for the good old days when Detroit had a no-nonsense, tough, (white) mayor, and all was great is border-line racist. I would suggest that, even if Snyder's heavy-handed, anti-democratic tactics result in an improvement in the economy of Detroit, it is too high a price to pay. Also, based on this article by Mr. Power, and several other recent Bridge articles on education in Michigan, The Center For Michigan should change its description as a "bipartisan, centrist think and do tank." For the sake of honesty and accuracy, perhaps it should rightly be called a "conservative, right-of-center think and do tank."
Tue, 03/05/2013 - 4:49pm
You forgot Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Tojo, Mao! Oh and by the way, Bill, Hitler and Mussolini were in fact democratically elected!
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 11:42am
Matt, thank you for expanding on my "etc., etc. I'm glad you agree. You are absolutely correct about the two dictators you mention being democratically elected. Now, could you explain what that fact has to do with my argument? I'm sure there must be a point.
Tue, 03/05/2013 - 11:01pm
Bill, you spew nothing but political rhetoric. Not a thing in your rant suggests a solution. So, you really like the job done by that the democratically elected Detroit City Council, huh? The options boil down to: (1) greatly reduce spending (even more than has been done by Mayor Bing), with or without an emergency manager, (2) bankruptcy, or (3) bail out by the state or feds (this will not happen). Since you don't like the EM approach, and City Council has proven time and again they are impotent, then I must assume you like the bankruptcy option? Well Bill, here is news for you: elected officials will have about ZERO control in bankruptcy court. Lawyers and the federal judge will make the decisions. Better get used to the loss of control. The leadership in Detroit has failed....but the voters put them there. Why should voters be given respect when they re-elected Kwame KNOWING he was a lying, stealing scoundrel. THAT statement, Bill, has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with common sense.
Wed, 03/06/2013 - 12:03pm
SBR, I don't think I spewed, at least I didn't mean to. I guess my opinion could be construed by some as political rhetoric, but regardless, it is what I believe after giving this issue much careful thought. No, I don't prefer bankruptcy, and I know Detroit has had decades of corrupt mismanagement. I don't have the solution, and I readily admit that. I don't know the right thing to do in this situation. But I do know the wrong thing to do, and that is to do what is being done currently by our governor. It is estimated that 51% of African American voters in Michigan have been disenfranchised by the emergancy manager law, and its interpretation by our governor and Republicans in the legislature. That's not a rant, but a fact. Michigan has the distinction of disenfranchising many more voters than the leaders in Florida, Ohio, Pennslyvania and other states that recently tried to suppress voting ever dreamed of. We just did it more sneakily, under the rader, and on the back end, rather than the front end. In the recent November election, Michigan voters had our say, and we voted the EM law out. That democratic (small d) decision was ignored and countermanded by Governor Snyder and the Rebublicans, who simply jammed through a new EM law, and this time, made sure it could not be put up for a vote by the people. If that is not rule by dictator, fascism, whatever term you want to give it, what is it? It surely isn't representative democracy. It is not OK to throw democracy out the window whenever some in our state feel it is more expedient, in order to "get the job done," or because it is happening to other people. What happens, SBR, when Governor Snyder nd his supporters decide it makes sense to cancel out YOUR vote, take over YOUR city, school district, company? What happens when the people you voted for are dismissed, and decisions that affect you are made by one person, appointed by the governor? What if your union contract (if you have one) is just cancelled, and you lose your income, and your ability to support your family? Nobody wants mismanagement, corruption, or baknruptcy. Democracy can be very messy and ugly. Autocracy can appear to be very clean, orderly, and first.
Sun, 03/10/2013 - 8:01am
The existing system obviously has not solved Detroit's problems so instead of complaining about a Emergency Manager why don't you suggest something.
Tue, 03/05/2013 - 12:40pm
“The Emergency Financial Manager is coming to repair the covenant between the government and the governed. … Keep the streets safe. Pick up the trash. Run the busses on time. Fight the fires and rescue the wounded.” There are many important things in this remark and it description of what it will take to for Detroit to stand on its own and grow. If there is a 'covenant between the government and the governed' then it means both parties to the covenant must invest and sacrifice together. For Detroit will not succeed if the residence do become active in doing and supporting the things that must be done. If the State invests in Detroit (using other people's money) and the citizens do not change, the politicians do not change, asking more and more and doing less and less Detroit will fail and the State migh as well disolve it now and let others start picking over the carcas. The other part is of Mr. Henderson's remarks was about what the City services are. The citizens and the State need to decide what purpose a city (why does a city exist) has. When begining to build or to rebuild the foundation must be solid and secure if there is to be any hope it to survive and be sustainable. Mr. Power remember the pinnicle of Detroit's history, we should all be reminded of what the city provided and what the community provide, for as with any convenant each party must work to help the covenant survive and benefit all. I have been back to Detroit and I have been to News Orleans after Katrina, the devistation in Detroit is far worse and it was self inflicted so it will be far more difficult to recover from. Mr. Power remembers driving in on Ford road, I remember getting on the bus at Eloise with my mother an riding Michigan Ave downtown to Hudson's, for a small kid seeing the City was a wonder in itself and then to go to the toy floor was a simple joy. I also remember 3 ten year boys taking that same bus to Michgian and Trumbul to Briggs Stadium to see the most beautiful grass and the boys of summer give us an afternoon of fun. Detroit was different then, it was a time when people were responsible and work at whatever they could and took care of what was around them. Detroit could be that again, but just as then people need to work at making it happen not waiting for others (politicians to give it to them).